Changes in Statewide Testing
In 2014, the Florida Department of Education phased out the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) and replaced it with the Florida Standards Assessment. The FSA encompasses three tests administered at various times:
• Students in grades 3–10 take the English Language Arts FSA.
• Students in grades 3–8 take the Mathematics FSA.
• Students in grades 5 and 8 take the Statewide Science Assessment.
• Students in any grade will be tested upon completion of Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, Biology 1, U.S. History, and Civics.
The FSA differs from previous multiple-choice standardized tests in that it tests higher-order thinking. According to the Department of Education, “Students are asked to create graphs, interact with test content, and write and respond in different ways than required on traditional tests.” Whereas FCAT and exams like it test for retention of facts, the FSA is designed to test logic and problem-solving ability. The DOE says that by testing analytical thinking, the new assessments provide a more accurate picture of student learning.
The most important thing for parents to understand about the testing change is that the minimum score needed to get a passing grade was raised. So it is now more difficult for your student to pass the test. The state raised the bar in hopes of encouraging better teacher and student performance.
Student grades from the 2015 FSA can be compared to the 2016 FSA to evaluate student progress, but your student’s 2014 scores cannot be included in that comparison, since the FCAT used a different scoring system.
The amount of time spent on testing varies by test. Writing tests are given in a single two-hour session. Reading tests are two sessions of 80–90 minutes each, depending on grade level. Math tests for grades 3–5 are given in two sessions of 80 minutes each, while in grades 6–8 the math tests are given in three sessions of 60 minutes each.
English Language Learners—students who are not native English speakers—who have been enrolled in U.S. schools for less than a year may be exempt from the Reading and Writing assessments. Such student will be given an English language proficiency exam. English Language Learners will take FSA tests for math and science.
The 2015 assessment produced school grades that were very different from previous years’ assessments under the FCAT system. Therefore 2015 serves as a baseline for future reference. The 2015 school grades do not include a student growth component, because 2014 FCAT scores are incompatible with the new FSA system. So when school grades in the 2016 year, which do include a student growth component, are compared to prior years’ grades, the picture they give is distorted. Therefore this years’ scores are only useful for comparing one school to another, and not for monitoring one school’s improvement over the previous year. That will not be possible until results are available for 2017.
The change in standards means many schools appear to have done better or worse than before. In Seminole County, for example, some schools that were traditionally considered A schools under the old system now have a B or even a C grade, even though no practices at the schools have changed. The apparent drop is attributable to the changing of the scoring system.
Charter schools, often considered a better option for students zoned to underperforming schools, did no better or worse as a group than traditional schools. Grades for charter schools are evenly spread across the spectrum, with some graded A and some F and others somewhere in between.
Due to the bar being set higher, three out of North Florida’s seven school districts saw their grades fall from last year: Clay and Nassau counties fell from A to B, and Baker County fell from B to C. St. Johns County maintained its A grade, Duval and Flagler maintained their grades at B, and Putnam’s grade remained a C.
It’s important to note, however, that as with individual schools, practices at the districts have not changed. Only the standards changed. As with individual schools, the FSA grades cannot be relied on to show whether districts have improved or not until the 2017 numbers are in.
What the scoring data does show is how the districts compare to one another. In Nassau County, for example, 66.7 percent of schools received an A grade under the new system, the highest of any of the seven North Florida districts. In Putnam County, by contrast, 10 percent of schools received an A grade, and 10 percent received an F. Baker, Flagler, and Nassau counties, meanwhile, had no F schools at all. But 8.3 percent of Flagler schools did not submit complete data, and therefore were not scored.
What Parents Can Do
Educators agree that the school grading system is a blunt tool that does not allow for nuanced measurement of schools’ worth. To get the complete picture, parents can download a spreadsheet of the scoring data from the DOE website: www.schoolgrades.fldoe.org. This data includes how students fared in different subjects, what percentage of students completed the FSA testing, and what percentage of students at each school are minority or economically disadvantaged.
To prepare your student for the 2016-2017 FSA, visit the state’s website at www.fsassessments.org and go to the “practice tests” section. These sample tests allow students to become familiar with the kinds of tasks the new tests include. Most tests are administered by computer. If your student has a learning disability that requires working on paper, you will need to work with your school counselor to ensure that you have an individual education plan or a Section 504 plan in place so accommodation can be made.
The Department of Education recommends several steps parents can take to help students succeed:
• Stay involved in your child’s education.
• Offer positive support and feedback.
• Encourage your child to relax and do his or her very best.
• Maintain communication with your student’s teachers and school administrators.
• Use school websites and portals to stay informed and to meet your child’s needs.